Can we measure school climate?
Here in the Washington area, we measure our schools many ways. We know their average SAT scores, their percentage of students passing state reading and math tests, their sizes, their racial mixes, their graduation rates and, of course, their football teams’ win-loss records.
But despite that easily accessible flood of numbers, we have no useful gauge of how it feels to be a student at, say, Oakton High School in Fairfax County, compared to Springbrook High School in Montgomery County or Cardozo High School in the District.
Are those schools’ students similarly comfortable? Do they worry in the same way about safety? Are they equally confident that their teachers and administrators have the stresses of school life in hand?
We don’t know.
I have been wondering about our failure to measure some of the most important school issues for our children since my newspaper recently published misleading safety indicators put out by D.C. public schools. A chart said Spingarn High School had only six security incidents in four months of 2009, way below the city average of 31, even though Spingarn teachers were reporting so much disruption at that time that the principal was fired because of it.
That’s typical, school security experts tell me. Administrators often cover up assaults and thefts so they won’t look bad. Security guards can be persuaded not to file reports. When some teachers see how much paperwork a complaint requires, they keep mum.
But we spend much time and money producing regular, detailed assessments of academic progress. Can’t we do that in measuring school climate?
Dick Reed, a parent and PTA officer in Fairfax, is also a Navy budget analyst. He measures how well systems work and has considered how to assess school atmosphere. He sees holes in the standard measures of school safety, such as absolute number of reported harmful incidents.
“I’d look at the rate of incidents per pupil,” he said. “And I’d separate those committed by outsiders from those committed by students, and in the classroom from those committed elsewhere on campus.”
Steve Peha, a North Carolina-based teacher and education consultant, recommends that schools measure not only assaults, threats and thefts but also a basic characteristic of learning, class participation. When he teaches, he makes participation part of the grade (often discouraged by school systems these days as unrelated to content mastery) and has students review their participation out loud in class. “Then I want a verbal commitment to improve,” he said.
“I can show, statistically, kids with higher degrees of participation make more progress in class and therefore reach higher levels of performance over time,” he said. Instead of gathering data on positive participation, he said, “all we do is track the negative participation of kids.” This, Peha said, sends “the message that aberrant behavior is more worthy of being tracked than the norm” and motivates more bad acts.
Donna Wright, a former principal in East Tennessee, said she improved her school climate by creating a principal’s roundtable of two dozen students who advised her. “I made sure I had a nice representation of thugs, along with the nerds and invisible kids,” she said. They gave her valuable information, as did students she paid for confidential tips on weapons and drugs.
An experienced Northern Virginia school official warned against the common practice of using discipline figures to identify different school environments. “The amount of discipline reported does not necessarily equate to a safe climate,” said the official, who requested anonymity to speak freely. A school that reports few suspensions is not necessarily better than one that reports many, the official said.
The best way to assess what students encounter is regular surveys of teachers and students. But like all true school improvements, that requires school leaders strong enough to listen and react intelligently to bad news. Such people are in short supply. Even the ones we have are not getting the information they need.
| January 12, 2011; 8:00 PM ET
Categories: Local Living | Tags: Dick Reed, Donna Wright, Steve Peha, distortions in D.C. security report figures, measuring if students feel differently at different schools, more student and teacher surveys needed, school climate, such data could however mean bad news
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